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True Zen Teachings

Mondo New Year's Sesshin 1997

Mondo by Robert Livingston Roshi. December 30, 4:00 pm


Come closer in so I can hear.

So, any questions today?

What's the correct way to chant?

What's the correct way to chant? How do you know that you're chanting correctly?

Chant? Ah, well chanting is very important. First of all, you don't want to be concentrated up here in the throat, mouth, tongue. Forget about trying to shape your chant or your voice. Let it come up straight. You don't want to control it, don't want to modulate it with the larynx, vocal cords. Open them up, relax the vocal cords, open up the throat.

Let it come straight up from deep. Let that chant come straight out. KAN JI ZAI BOSATSU! You feel it in the hara. This is where you concentrate for a chant. If you have a problem with your throat, if you have a tightness in your chest, then you feel it immediately. The chanting becomes strained, you cannot get a deep sound.

You don't have to worry about trying to pronounce every single word perfectly clearly and annunciate exactly as it is written. Don't worry about that, it will come with continued practice. We're not worried about someone understanding our words when we chant. Let it come up.

We're pushing down the diaphragm just as in zazen. Fill your lungs, then slowly, gently, drop it down as that air comes out. In zazen, you're not controlling the breathing in the throat. You're not aware of it coming out your nose or coming out the back of your throat. You're not constricting anything up here, constricting anything with your vocal cords. You're concentrating down here, deep in the hara. It's all coming from down here. It is the same with the breathing, dropping down, same with the chant, always from down here. Let it come out.

If you don't have a deep, strong sound, if you're not using your lower abdomen and your diaphragm properly, then it's going to be short. You are going to get constricted. If you have constriction in your chest, that cuts it off, and you will not have a deep, strong sound. So chanting is very important. You must try to practice that. Not only when we have ceremony, but take five or ten minutes a day and sit and chant the Hannya Shingyo. Practice that, letting it go, letting it come out from down here, not controlling it. Let it out.

So how do you know? You practice! You practice, you listen. Listen to yourself, be aware of your chant.


Is chanting always in a rough, deep voice?

Will it always sound like this when you chant? This really deep rough voice? Is that what it's going to be when it comes from that area?

Yes - though sometimes people maybe have a more beautiful chanting than I! Everyone sounds differently. Everyone has different lungs, different throat and so forth.

But you want to get the lowest natural tone for your own person, and try to blend with the others. Blend with the others who are chanting. But sometimes you have to lead them too and help them. They may be helping you, or you may have to help them - both ways. We all chant together, so we help each other and try to harmonize with the others.

I'm not saying that any particular tone is the right one. It should be the right one for you. But it must be strong and deep and long.

I find that in my breathing in zazen, I can have quite a long exhalation. But when I'm chanting, for some reason, I can chant even longer than my normal exhalation. I don't try to push too far or too hard, but my normal exhalation in zazen will last between twenty and thirty seconds. In the chanting, it can last longer than that. I don't know why, it seems to be that way.

So chanting will help you to develop a deeper breathing in your zazen. Very important.


How do you "drop" the organs during the exhalation?

-This whole deal with feeling your organs drop during the exhalation, I really don't feel my organs drop. I guess I don't know what to look for as far as feeling that. I can try and focus on my breathing, but I'm not feeling any kind of dropping at all. I've really been looking for it and trying to feel it. But I can't find any . .

Don't look for it! Don't try that way. Just practice letting it fall down.

It's not like, "Whup, there goes the liver! There goes the kidney! Oh, there's the stomach down there!" It's not really like that.

When you fill your lungs, as you expand you don't have to gasp, but it's not bad at all to get a good amount of air in your lungs. So when you're exhaling everything is coming down, pushing. But it's not exactly "pushing" or "dropping." I don't know the words. It's something you feel and don't try to analyze too much. Feel yourself just letting it drop down. Then you feel, in all your lower abdomen, a slight pressure coming from the inside, giving a little pushing out feeling.

Most problems come from the lower abdomen, the muscles there being too tight, not being flexible enough. This is why it takes time to develop that breathing. It's much easier to develop a good posture than it is to develop a deep, strong exhalation. You must make it deep, because that is what strengthens and expands, makes the muscles here more flexible. They become stronger and at the same time more flexible.

Generally people who haven't done zazen for a long time have tightness here in the lower abdomen because they are always holding in. They don't have that flexible strength below. So when you try to push out, it won't because it's too tight. You have to learn to stretch those muscles. Let it drop down until it won't easily go any further. It's sort of like an internal massage as your intestines and other organs drop.

It's not a question of how to find out what's happening. It's not a biological anatomical study. It's more intuitive. Let it drop. As it expands it's strong, but it has a good expansion.

Right now I can tell you, when I started zazen, it was very difficult for me. I didn't have that kind of breathing. Chanting helped a lot to develop that feel for it, the feel of that exhalation. And then it comes out as it comes out. Now, I always open the top button on my trousers, loosen the buckle a little bit and let my belly drop down and expand.

When you have a lower center of gravity, you're more stable. You're center drops from up here to down here. I'm not just talking physically, I'm speaking about being more stable totally.

Now I look in the mirror, and sometimes I just let my belly drop out. And my wife says, "Woah, you're just pushing it out to impress me! Or to gross me out!" because it comes way out like this. I could never do that before.

So continue zazen. It takes time to develop the hara. Letting it drop down is very important. That's why we have to tilt the hips down and let that hang down. You don't want any obstructions, let it just hang.

Then it comes up. At the end of your exhalation, inhale. When I inhale, of course, that diaphragm drops down and makes the abdomen come out just a little bit more. Then it will tend to come in a little bit as you fill your lungs. If you fill the top of your lungs and then continue filling them, opening up the chest, the chest will be stretched up more. So it's not that it feels like it's sucking in, but it's not hanging down as much. Then you start again, just let it drop down. I'd have to take off my clothes to show you. Just let it come down all the way around. It takes time, but you must practice that.

Zazen of course is the most effective way to develop good breathing. But as I said, another effective way is to practice chanting. If you take just five minutes a day or so to practice your chanting, that will help.

Be aware of that, let it drop down. Don't try to force or go to any extremes. Just let it drop. And make sure you have the right posture. Make sure you've got the hips tilted forward like that.

I don't know exactly what it is. Everyone, of course, is slightly different, everyone is built differently. With some people it's easier for that to happen, the way they're built. Maybe they have very loose muscles. Or maybe the belly hangs down all the way anyway - naturally! But it will improve that too. Because those muscles will not only be flexible, they get stronger as well, so you have much more support in your lower abdomen.


Should I concentrate on the inhalation as well?

I found that if when I inhale, I inhale down deep into the hara, it seems to help my flexibility. Is there anything wrong with that, with paying attention to the inhalation as well? There is a sense of stretching and gaining flexibility when I do that.

Well, I don't know, maybe. I'm not sure that it's good or necessary to do that during zazen. You could do that at other times besides during zazen.

I still concentrate on my exhalation.

Yes, I know.

I don't know. [He tries it.] It's very difficult for me to have that kind of concentration on the inhalation. You mean as it expands?

Yes, it's like inhaling and feeling. . .

Well, you could be aware of that. What you're being aware of, I would think, is that movement when the diaphragm is pushing down. You could be aware of that downward push and the resulting expansion in your lower abdomen during the inhalation, yes.

It just seems to somehow loosen things up down in here in a way that the exhalation doesn't.

You have to observe your own body and understand whether it's really beneficial or not. And one way you can tell that is through your chanting. Listen to the depth and resonance and strength of your chanting to see if it's open. It's very important to have that coming up from here.

I know if something is wrong with me, if I'm not feeling well, if I have a cold, or I'm sick or something, that cuts off my chanting so I can't hardly chant at all. And that's the result of a problem.

But under normal circumstances, you can understand your breathing through your chant, you can become intimate with it. See whether this helps your chanting. Be aware of your chanting and how that breathing effects it. So pay close attention to the lower inhalation if that is going to help your chanting-and vice versa.

You have to study it. Everyone has a different body. We have to develop on our own. Nobody can get inside you and push and pull and do it all. We have to work it out ourselves.


How do I deal with too much sexual energy?

In the past four months since I've starting practicing zazen here, I've noticed an increase in energy, more vigor, and some kinds of energies are more beneficial than others. But I have an excess of some other kinds of energy, and it makes it sometimes kind of hard to concentrate. And I'm wondering if it's just kind of an age thing . . . No, seriously, I don't want that kind of energy right now! It makes it hard to get through the day sometimes!

Well, this is very common. And I suppose it happens at all ages, but I suppose it happens more often, more strongly, when you're in your twenties, when you're young. That's something you have to . . . What's your question?

Oh man! How do I deal with this? Is there something besides being in the bathroom all day?

Sometimes it's a question of the mind too. Not only the body and the hormones, but the mind, your concentration. You have to concentrate on what you're doing, your work.

If you have sex, you want to concentrate on sex. And if you concentrate on sex completely when you're having sex, then you can turn around and concentrate on something else. You don't want to get yourself frustrated, but you also don't want to build up obsessions. You don't want to be always obsessed, because then you can't concentrate on anything.

Concentrate. If you pick up a book, get into that book, then your mind stops thinking, wandering. If you get into a task you're doing, concentrate on it deeply, then you're not thinking about anything. All that drops away then. It's a question of concentrating here and now, on whatever you're doing.

Thanks.


Is it good to not masturbate?

That reminded me of something. A lot of different religions will say that holding back, or not having sex, or not masturbating is actually good and beneficial for your practice. I wanted to know how you felt about that. Is it good to not masturbate, when you need to?

I don't have much experience in that. I don't think I hold back too much in anything! You just do what you do.

If you're always holding back, it builds up a problem. It builds up this obsession more and more. If you're not doing this, you think, "Oh I can't do this, I can't do that." In Catholic monasteries, it's always a problem with the monks. Many of them are always escaping because of this mentality: "You can't do this! You can't do that! This is not right, all these bodily functions!" These are only morals, morality.

It's not a question of morality at all. It's a question of what disturbs you in your life. Really, if you've got this obsession, if you're always thinking about sex or indulging in sex, this can be a problem. But if you don't indulge at all, this is also a problem. So you have to find a middle way, not to completely cut yourself off from anything, unless it's harming you. And you'll know it if it harms you.

With the Buddha, Shakyamuni Buddha in his early practice, of course it was the same way. In India in those days, the Hindu practice was complete abnegation of everything, practically self-flagellation, and you couldn't do anything. And of course this can lead to breakdowns and madness, and all sorts of problems (physical, mental, all kinds).

So Buddhism became the middle way. You have to find a balance between this and that. And everyone has to find their own balance. So it's never really a question of outside rules telling you, you can't do this, you can't do that. We must develop our own rules, our own understanding and our own practice. This comes from within, not from without. We must develop it within. Whatever helps us follow the cosmic order without causing a lot of disturbances and problems is alright. If we do something to excess, to the point where it disturbs us, then we know something is wrong. We have to come back to some sort of balance.

So it's not a question of whether it is good and bad, it's what our own experience is. We have to experience these things ourselves and understand our own body-mind. And vis-à-vis our own actions, we see whether they are harmful to us, whether they hurt us, give us problems, or whether we feel good and unobstructed and free and flowing. As in all things, we have to discover that ourselves.


How do I keep from having to swallow when I do zazen?

I have a lot of saliva when I meditate. How do I keep from having so much saliva when I meditate?

During zazen? With me and the way I've been taught (and it seems to work pretty well), it is all in the way you hold your mouth. You don't want to clench your jaws. The teeth can touch, but don't clench them. Seal off, push the tip of the tongue up against the palate, press there against the back of your front teeth and concentrate.

Sometimes maybe you've been eating something that might stimulate saliva, but generally that is the most effective thing that I've found. Just keep the tongue firm and locked in there, and concentrate on your zazen. You'll forget about it and it won't flow so much. Every once in a while it will though. But I think with practice it will get better. I don't think there's any magic solution-other than filling your mouth full of alum! That might work, but I wouldn't try that.


How can I balance creating my own practice and following a master?

This is about zazen and Zen practice. There is a lot said about creating one's own practice. People ask you questions and you say, "You have to find out for yourself." There's that side of things. And also in zazen, in Zen practice, there's having to follow a Zen master.

When there is a conflict between following the path of the true self and following another person what can you do? I have a lot of problems personally. The two sometimes seem different, and it's hard to resolve.

Give me an example. What are you talking about?

Well, it's hard to say. In Zen practice, in samu around the Temple, especially in zazen. Sometimes I'll feel like having to follow your teaching or your kusen gets between me and my practice.

Well what teaching, what kusen are you speaking of?

It's very hard for me to be specific. This is something I've noticed over a long period of time.

Many times in the Temple, I do differently than what you say. And it's true, I do make a lot of simply dumb mistakes. But often it is deliberate. I really feel differently about something, and I find it hard not to trust my convictions. I find it hard not to follow them.

Are you speaking about zazen or are you speaking about your mind?

No, it's not just my mind-as best as I can tell. Often times I will follow my own deeper intuitions, rather than your teaching. Sometimes, as a result, I make big mistakes, sometimes very big mistakes. But sometimes I'm really glad I did something else. I discovered something new. And that's creating my own practice, I guess.

Now like what? Give me an example.

I wish I could.

You mean in your physical body?

Yes, in my bodily practice around the Temple and in the way I conduct myself towards others and throughout daily life. I'm trying to ask about it in general terms.

It can't be answered on that level, you have to take each instance in itself. If you generalize, you're not going to learn anything.

But generally in practice, if you're talking about Zen practice, if you're talking about zazen, then yes, we have a certain tradition, which we can get from Dogen and all the great masters. We have a posture and we have a breathing and we have an attitude of mind. But within that framework, there are many other things inside internally (whether it be something physical, or problems of the mind that effect the physical, or problems of the physical that effect the mind). We have to work with what we have.

Now nobody can tell you exactly how to act in every given situation, because every situation is new and changing, and you have to adapt as best you can. Sometimes you can adapt and sometimes you can't. And sometimes what I think you should do, you cannot at that moment adapt to that, and you will have difficulties if you try.

That is what I mean!

But at the same time you have to find a balance, because you have to harmonize with the others. You have to go beyond what is good for your own particular self and think of what is good for the Temple and the sangha and the mission. And sometimes we feel, "Ah, it's no good for me!" because sometimes our karma is such that we think, "I don't want to do it! It's not my way. I want to do something else."

We have to find a balance and sometimes go beyond our own personal opinions or feelings. Because sometimes if we can drop our own opinion away, then the obstacle to doing something this way or that way can fall away as well. Sometimes it's just a question of our own ego, our own stubbornness, our own habits, our own karma.

All these things happen. I am the same way. But we just have to try not to stick on a particular way. Even if I'm insisting on this, that, or the other, I'm not thinking about my particular individual way or your particular individual way. I'm thinking we all have to find a way together to balance this thing. And I may say this or that, and you may have a different experience of it here. Well, you have to compromise, because generally it's just a question of a particular view point or feeling at the moment.

Sometimes we think and are fixed in certain ways, in certain things. We're not thinking about the other person or other things. Sometimes I come and say, " I want it done this way." And maybe you have been doing it another way, or you know something that I don't know. I want your information. That may modify my way of thinking. And in the same way, maybe I say something and you don't understand why, because there may be a lot of other things involved here than just what you're looking at. So then you must say (like today), "Why? Explain to me why."

But sometimes it's not so good for me to explain, because each one of us has to find those ways and learn ourselves. Someone can tell you this or that, or can explain this, that and the other thing. But that's not giving you the chance to work your own way and develop your own understanding and appreciation. But sometimes it's necessary to explain. Otherwise you can get more screwed up because you don't understand the other way of thinking.

And sometimes I may get insistent about one thing. But I may be that way that moment, I may be a different way the next moment. Don't get upset or too fixated on it, because the next moment I've forgotten it. And that's what we all have to do, let it go. One moment to the next, let it go and go on. Try to harmonize. Not so easy sometimes with me, I know.

That helps a lot. Thanks.


Do you still have pain in the knees and shoulders?

The points where I feel the most pain are the knees and shoulders. Do you still have pain in those points?

My knees, at this moment, hurt like hell! I've been sitting here, and I'm sitting here wondering how long you guys are going to keep asking me questions!

But I forget about it though when I'm talking to you, listening to your questions, trying to explain. Then I don't think about my knees and the pain, I don't feel them. You mentioned them, then I think, "Oh yeah, they hurt." They hurt, but it's a question of what we're concentrating on.

What was your question again?

And how about the shoulders? And how should I deal with it?

Well the shoulders too, whatever. With the shoulders, sometimes it's a question of tension. With the knees, it's a little different problem. It's a question of how we're made, how much damage we've had. For instance in my case, I've done a lot of damage to the tendons and cartilage and so forth in my knees.

The knees work themselves out more with continued practice - unless you have serious damage, then you have to work with that too. But generally, if you're really concentrated on your practice or whatever you're doing, you're no longer aware of the pain.

With the shoulders, sometimes it's a question of posture. We build up tension in our body-mind (from our mind and our daily life) and our shoulders no longer drop. But if you're stretching that neck out, head pressing the sky, and you concentrate, concentrate on dropping, everything's hanging off that backbone, then if your posture is correct, generally you won't have that tension.

Sometimes though, you may have a physical problem, mental problem, or a problem with the weather. A lot of things can cause it. Then you just have to really concentrate on letting it go, letting everything drop, relaxing everything, letting that whole lower abdomen and the internal organs drop. Everything hangs. Just stretch out the backbone. It takes practice, and everyday. And also it changes, everyday is different.

So we have to work and find the solution ourselves. Nobody can really tell you, and give you the magic touch or the magic wand and say, "It's going to be alright now." You have to work through it yourself, because it's coming from inside.

This is something you really have to develop yourself.



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